Coffee Concert 27th January 2019 – Doric Quartet – Strings Attached Review by Andrew Polmear

Word must have got out that something special was going to take place; the Attenborough Centre was fuller than we have ever seen it for a Coffee Concert. The Doric have played in Brighton before and been superb. There has been a change since the last time they were here; since October 2018 they have played Haydn and even Mendelssohn with classical bows – not necessarily lighter than modern bows but held on the wood, further from the nut (that is, the end of the bow) and so lighter in feel. In addition, the bow has a narrower ribbon of horsehair. They find these bows more responsive, the sound more precise.

Haydn Op.33 No.4 seemed to prove their point. Chris Darwin tells us in the programme notes that the late Hans Keller dismissed this quartet as below Haydn’s usual standard. He should have heard the Doric play it.

The skittish opening of the first movement was extraordinarily fast and delicate, the contrasts between loud and soft astonishingly dramatic. Haydn marked these passages forte and piano. However, Haydn’s forte is a lot quieter than Beethoven’s and the Doric played the passages mezzo forte and pianissimo. Fast semiquavers played quietly are always impressive; played pianissimo they were devastating. And so it continued for the three fast movements, as we recalibrated our ears to this new sound. Another advantage of this way of playing is that you can hear the inner parts much more easily. The Doric say they are not interested “in creating a lush wall of sound” in which individual voices are lost. Here we heard every nuance from every player. Take the slow movement, which Chris Darwin refers to as “the emotional heart of the work”. It was exquisitely slow and achingly beautiful. Thirteen bars from the start the second violin has three bars of repeated semiquavers. Every note, played by Ying Xue, was perfectly shaped, a joy to listen to. I’ve never noticed them before because when played by other quartets the first violin’s “tune” dominates. Incidentally, Ying Xue only joined the quartet a few months ago. Let’s hope she stays.

For Bartok’s Quartet No.5 the Doric changed to modern bows; they only go as late as Mendelssohn on classical bows. But it was interesting that the features of their playing that were so effective in the Haydn were also apparent here: delicacy, precision, dramatic changes of mood, a perfect understanding between the four players. As before, the first violin played no louder than any other player, possibly quieter, yet his sound came through in perfect balance because his part is pitched higher. They captured the different mood of each movement wonderfully: the boisterous Allegro, the tender, unearthly Adagio, the frenetic but still tender Scherzo, the lyrical Andante and the boisterous, sometimes tender, sometimes frankly weird, Finale. The programme notes gave us a hint of the complexity of Bartok’s composing. Cellist John Myerscough, in his engaging talk before the playing started, referred to the ‘Night Music’ of the slow movements, in which Bartok imitates the sounds of small animals and insects in the forest at night. I found I didn’t need to think in either of these terms. I preferred to let the music work its magic, from the complex interweaving of players in the first movement to the stillness of the second, as though contemplating eternity, and so on. As we came out people said “I thought Bartok was difficult but they made everything absolutely clear”. Yes, exactly.

Mendelssohn Op. 44 No.2 was a treat of joyful exuberance and glorious calm. Here, for the first time, I had a reservation. Mendelssohn writes luscious tunes and whoever has the tune needs to bring it out. John Myerscough on cello was wonderful, but the leader, Alex Redington, was a bit too understated for my taste. His tone has a lovely silvery sound but those solos need what is called, in sophisticated musical circles, “a bit more welly”. They were back to classical bows for this piece; perhaps modern bows would have served them better.

But this is a personal reservation which did nothing to blunt the exhilaration I felt coming out of a wonderful concert into the blustery January rain.